Living in the Now
by Braha Bender
Julie wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t lazy. She just had better things to do. Teachers droned on and on while Julie stared out the window. She wasn’t bored. She was just busy planning out her afternoon. What shows she was going to watch. What she and her best friend would schmooze about on the phone. What she would eat for lunch. The material that she was missing in class? Julie figured that she would make it up later.
“Later” was a very important figure in Julie’s life. In fact, Julie and “Later” were thick as thieves. The moment anything felt like a little too much work, a little too much effort, “Later” was there to come straight to Julie’s rescue.
“I’ll do my homework later, mom!,” Julie would call. She wasn’t an obstinate child or a rude teenager. She just had things she wanted to attend to. Things that were more important right now. (That is, more important than homework.)
Studying for tests could also wait for later. Getting papers written? Later, later. Julie knew she was smart. She knew she could knock it back once she got her game on. And she would, she told herself, she really would. It just wasn’t something she wanted to be doing just at the moment. Because right now there were other things to do…
When the day came, Julie opened up her report card slowly. She had a feeling about what she would see written there, but it wasn’t something she had wanted to think about. “Later” had let her off the hook whenever the uncomfortable thought had come to call. As she saw the embarrassingly low grades, the teacher’s complaints and questions, a careful observer may have seen an expression pass over Julie’s face. Just for a moment, Julie’s features crumpled like a piece of paper being rolled into a ball and tossed into a wastebasket. That was how Julie felt – like garbage.
But it would have taken a very careful observer to see, because that expression passed within an instant. Anyone else would have taken in only the way Julie started laughing. “Later” was still at the helm. After all, this was only the first semester. She would pick it up the next semester, save her grades and her future, make her parents and herself proud – later. Later.
There Will Be Your Grave
Would you believe that the verses describing the giving of the Torah mention Julie?
“Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.” (Shmos-Exodus 19:17)
Can’t see her? Rashi’s commentary speaks to the Julie in all of us. Quoting Rabbi Avdimi, one of the scholars of the Talmud, Rashi explains that the verse can be read literally. Not only did the Jewish People stand at the bottom of Mount Sinai, they actually stood beneath it:
“The mountain was uprooted from its place and turned over them like a vat.” (Talmud Shabbos 88a)
“And [the Almighty] said to them, ‘If you receive the Torah – excellent, and if not – there will be your grave.’” (ibid)
Does this sound like an abusive relationship to you? “Take my Torah or die.” Between two human beings, a threat like that would definitely be out of line. Coming from the Almighty, though, it turns out that what looks like a threat is just an existential truth.
It wasn’t that the Jewish People would actually refuse to receive the Torah. Most of us don’t outright refuse to do what is obviously good for us. Instead, we sabotage ourselves. Just like Julie, we promise to do later. We make “Later” our best friend.
The thing about “Later”, though, is that later never comes. The horizon always beckons. Tomorrow is always one step ahead. Procrastination is an addictive drug that can destroy lives just as well as cocaine.
But it’s worse than that, or better, depending on your perspective. It isn’t just that “Later” steals momentum. It’s that catching up with ourselves is impossible. The one precious moment that we each occupy right now is totally unique and irreplaceable. The opportunities of today will not return tomorrow because we will not be, tomorrow, exactly who and what and where we are today. Right now is one of a kind.
Torah in the Now
Chumash Devarim, the final words of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses Our Teacher), and the final one of the five books of the Written Torah, opens with a poignant reminder:
“And now, O Israel, hearken to the statutes and to the judgments which I teach you to do, in order that you may live…” (Devarim-Deuteronomy 4:1)
Now! Today! What makes seizing the moment so important? As Rav Noach Weinberg, founder of Aish HaTorah, put it, “Killing time is death on the installment plan.” It isn’t just about “hearkening to the statutes and to the judgments…” It’s about choosing life. It’s about waking up and being present in the moment “in order that you may live…”
And when did you think that life was going to begin? This is it, buddy! Now!
Because receiving the Torah now, at every moment of our lives – including this one – is life with dividends multiplying through infinity. And that’s worth making the effort for, Julie.